, Volume 8, Issue 2, pp 123-131,
Open Access This content is freely available online to anyone, anywhere at any time.
Date: 20 Mar 2011

Defining Medical Futility and Improving Medical Care

Abstract

It probably should not be surprising, in this time of soaring medical costs and proliferating technology, that an intense debate has arisen over the concept of medical futility. Should doctors be doing all the things they are doing? In particular, should they be attempting treatments that have little likelihood of achieving the goals of medicine? What are the goals of medicine? Can we agree when medical treatment fails to achieve such goals? What should the physician do and not do under such circumstances? Exploring these issues has forced us to revisit the doctor-patient relationship and the relationship of the medical profession to society in a most fundamental way. Medical futility has both a quantitative and qualitative component. I maintain that medical futility is the unacceptable likelihood of achieving an effect that the patient has the capacity to appreciate as a benefit. Both emphasized terms are important. A patient is neither a collection of organs nor merely an individual with desires. Rather, a patient (from the word “to suffer”) is a person who seeks the healing (meaning “to make whole”) powers of the physician. The relationship between the two is central to the healing process and the goals of medicine. Medicine today has the capacity to achieve a multitude of effects, raising and lowering blood pressure, speeding, slowing, and even removing and replacing the heart, to name but a minuscule few. But none of these effects is a benefit unless the patient has at the very least the capacity to appreciate it. Sadly, in the futility debate wherein some critics have failed or refused to define medical futility an important area of medicine has in large part been neglected, not only in treatment decisions at the bedside, but in public discussions—comfort care—the physician’s obligation to alleviate suffering, enhance well being and support the dignity of the patient in the last few days of life.